The province of Mpumalanga is located in north-eastern South Africa, bordered by Mozambique to the east and Swaziland to the south-east. The province has great historic, scenic and wildlife diversity. A considerable variation in altitude and ecological zones has produced a rich and varied bird population occurring over a mosaic of grassland, forest, wetland, savanna and mountain habitats. The northern Drakensberg range separates the relatively cool, temperate Highveld from the sweltering, sub-tropical Lowveld. Rivers are mainly east-flowing, the most important being the Crocodile, Sabie and Olifants. The entire province is a summer rainfall region, with rainfall ranging from 350mm in the north-east Lowveld to 1,600mm per annum at the higher altitudes. On the Escarpment heavy mists afford extra moisture which can be up to 50% of the annual precipitation. Cold winters are experienced over the Highveld, with occasional snow on the Escarpment, but in the Lowveld the winters are short and mild. Summers are mild to warm on the Highveld, but can be exceptionally hot in the low-lying parts of the Lowveld.
Birding habitats in Mpumalanga comprise:
Afro-montane Forest, which is confined to the mistbelt of the Escarpment, usually in fire-protected gorges or moist south-facing slopes. Endemics favouring this habitat include Chorister Robin-Chat, Knysna Turaco, Bush Blackcap, Barratt's Warbler and Forest Canary, with other specials being Orange Ground Thrush, White-Starred Robin, Yellow-throated Woodland-Warbler, Olive Bush Shrike, Swee Waxbill and Narina Trogon.
Acacia/Broad-leaved Savannah occurs in low-lying areas below the Escarpment and on the foothills. Vegetation structure varies from dense thorny thickets to tall, park-like woodland. Large tracts of savannah are conserved in the Kruger National Park. This habitat holds the greatest number of bird species, including numerous raptors, shrikes, hornbills, barbets, rollers, woodpeckers, bee-eaters, bustards and many, many more. It has the distinction of hosting both the largest and smallest of South Africa's birds, namely Ostrich and Grey Penduline Tit. Savannah dominated by thorn trees (Acacia species) usually has a more diverse bird community than broad-leaved woodlands, but the woodlands in the south-western Lowveld have a number of special birds such as Yellow-bellied and Green-capped Eremomelas, Pale Flycatcher, Bushveld Pipit, Croaking and Lazy Cisticolas, Striped Pipit, Yellow-throated Petronia and African Firefinch.
Dry Bushveld is found in the low-rainfall region of north-western Mpumalanga and is dominated by thorn trees (Acacia species). While a number of species are shared with the moister eastern savannahs, there are several unique species such as Crimson-breasted Shrike, Black-faced and Violet-eared Waxbills, Shaft-tailed Whydah, Great Sparrow and Pied Babbler.
Montane Grassland covers most high-altitude mountains. This is the most important habitat in Mpumalanga for finding some of South Africa's endemic birds, a number of which are rare and localised. The list includes mouth-watering specials such as Rudd's and Botha's Larks, Yellow-breasted and African Rock Pipits, Southern Bald Ibis, Blue and Barrow's Korhaans, Ground Woodpecker, Sentinel Rock Thrush, Buff-streaked Chat and Blue Crane. Mist-belt grassland, a form of montane grassland confined to mist-shrouded parts of the Escarpment, is one of South Africa's most threatened habitats, with much being covered by plantations of exotic trees. These sterile, man-made forests have replaced most of the rich grasslands to the detriment of many species, the most renowned example being the Blue Swallow.
Highveld Grassland once occurred over much of western Mpumalanga, but has now largely been transformed into fields of maize. Where pockets of grassland remain, the birding can be surprisingly good, common species including Long-tailed Widowbird, Yellow-Crowned Bishop, Cape Longclaw and Marsh Owl. A number of specials can still be found including Botha's Lark, Pink-billed Lark, Grass Owl, Black-winged Pratincole and Montagu's Harrier.
Wetlands are most prominent on the Escarpment (marshes) and Highveld (shallow, open pans). The dominant waterbodies in the Lowveld are rivers and man-made dams. High-altitude marshes on the Escarpment form vital breeding habitat for two endangered species, Wattled Crane and the enigmatic White-winged Flufftail. The shallow Highveld pans are often home to large numbers of waterfowl, including Cape Shoveller, Hottentot Teal, Southern Pochard, South African Shelduck and Maccoa Duck, and others like Greater Flamingo, African Spoonbill and Chestnut-banded Plover. Special birds along Lowveld rivers include African Black Duck, African Finfoot, Goliath Heron, African Pied Wagtail and Half-collared Kingfisher.
Cliffs and mountain peaks are mostly confined to the Escarpment. Birds favouring this habitat include Verreaux's Eagle, Jackal Buzzard, African Black Swift, Black Stork and the extremely rare Taita Falcon.
Blyde River Canyon Nature Reserve
This is the third-largest canyon in the world and one of Africa's scenic wonders. The Blyde River flows through this 700-metre deep chasm into the Swadini Dam at the mouth of the canyon. The 27 000-hectare Blyde River Canyon Nature Reserve supports a diverse range of habitats, including mistbelt grassland, sheer cliffs, riverine forest and dense savanna. Two Aventura Resorts operate in the reserve, one above the canyon and the other below, offering excellent accommodation and ideal opportunities to explore a network of walking trails. Well-wooded resort grounds offer some of the best birding in the nature reserve, including Mocking Cliff-Chat, Cape Rock Thrush, Striped Pipit, Knysna and Purple-crested Turacos, Drakensberg Prinia, Lazy Cisticola, African Pied and Long-tailed Wagtails, Greater and Southern Double-collared Sunbirds, Orange-breasted and Olive Bush Shrike, Brimstone Canary and Golden-breasted Bunting. View points into the canyon are ideal for raptor watching and this must rate as one of South Africa's raptor hot-spots. Regular sightings include Verreaux's Eagle, Cape Vulture, Jackal Buzzard, Lanner Falcon, African Goshawk and White-necked Raven. The ultimate prize is Taita Falcon - an incredibly rare little falcon that nests nearby and occasionally flies over.
The small hamlet of Kaapsehoop is situated 30 kilometres south-west of Nelspruit. The area consists of gradually undulating mistbelt grassland, with some rocky outcrops and forested pockets restricted to moist valleys. The rare and endangered Blue Swallow breeds in the grasslands and the Blue Swallow Natural Heritage Site has been formed to afford protection for this globally threatened species. Access to the reserve can be gained by engaging a local resident guide trained by BirdLife South Africa. There is bed and breakfast and private guesthouse accommodation in the village and a good variety of accommodation in nearby Nelspruit. Blue Swallow is the major attraction between September and April but other rare species include Striped Flufftail and Black-rumped Buttonquail. Other good birds to find include Black-winged Lapwing, Cape Grassbird, Cape Longclaw, Drakensberg Prinia, Buff-streaked chat, Gurney's Sugarbird and Long-billed Pipit. Forest pockets below the plateau are good for Grey Cuckooshrike, Olive Bush Shrike, Bush Blackcap, Chorister Robin-Chat and Knysna Touraco. Barratt's Warbler is in low vegetation on the forest fringe.
Kruger National Park
This fabulous national park needs little introduction and is already well known and as a priority birding destination in South Africa. A diversity of savannahs, tropical grasslands and riverine forests covering an area the size of Wales makes for an overwhelming array of birds. Both birds and wildlife are more confiding than those in denser habitats, making for easy birding and great photographic opportunities. Some of the readily found specials include Martial Eagle, Bateleur, Kori Bustard, Southern Ground Hornbill, Lappet-faced Vulture, Lilac-breasted Roller, Southern White-crowned Shrike and African White-throated Robin-Chat. Add to this a range of mammals like Lion, African Elephant, both Black and White Rhinos, African Buffalo, Leopard, Cheetah and Wild Dog, and you get an unbeatable combination. Accommodation is of a good standard and affordable, ranging from basic campsites to luxurious bungalows.
Kruger National Park - Central
The habitat, south of Letaba is undulating with mixed combretum and the eastern part dominated by acacia thornveld and marula on grassveld. Little Swifts, Bat Hawk, Horus Swift, White-crowned Lapwing and Black Stork.
Kruger National Park - North
The western half is Mopane Woodland which is not as good for birds. Mopane shrubland in the eastern grasslands has a special appeal with loads of game. Pafuri would be the preferred birding area with several birds which reach their most southern limit and can be seen nowhere else in South Africa, south of the Limpopo River. Grey-headed Parrot, Bohm's- and Mottled Spinetails, Meve's Starling, Dickinson's Kestrel and Racket-tailed Roller.
Kruger National Park - South
Gomondwane Bush, mixed combretum and well wooded kloofs dominates the southern part of the Park. African Finfoot, African Green-pigeon, Harlequin Quail, Stierling's Wren Warbler, Yellow-breasted Apalis, Gorgeous Bush-shrike and Mocking Chat are birds all likely to be seen.
Lake Chrissie is the largest of a complex of shallow Highveld pans in South Africa's unofficial Lake District. Most of the 320 pans are on private land, but many can be viewed from public roads. The area supports large numbers of both Lesser and Greater Flamingos, and is an important refuge for the remaining population of Wattled Crane in Mpumalanga. Other specials include Grey Crowned Crane, African Marsh Harrier, Chestnut-banded Plover, Grass Owl, Barrow's Korhaan, Amur (Eastern Red-footed) Falcon, Black-winged Pratincole and Cape Eagle Owl.
Mount Sheba Nature Reserve
This small reserve has some of the best accessible Afromontane forest left in Mpumalanga. Mount Sheba Hotel is situated in the Escarpment hills above the historic gold-mining village of Pilgrim's Rest, on a grassy knoll surrounded by forest. A well-laid network of trails cover much of the forest and grassland on the upper hill slopes. Some Southern African endemics to be found in the forest include Knysna Touraco, Chorister Robin-Chat, Cape Batis, Olive Bush Shrike, Southern Double-collared Sunbird and Forest Canary. Grasslands and rocky outcrops have endemics like Grassbird, Drakensberg Prinia, Gurney's Sugarbird (around flowering protea bushes); Cape Rock Thrush and Buff-streaked Chat.
Nelspruit is the largest town in Mpumalanga and the capital of the province. Lush, wooded gardens, granite outcrops and riverine forest along the Crocodile River flowing through the town makes for good birding opportunities. The total list for the municipal area is in the region of 275 species and the Lowveld National Botanical Gardens and Nelspruit Nature Reserve make birding easy for visitors to the town. Accommodation is varied and a recent publication titled Birds of Nelspruit provides a comprehensive list and suggestions for birding walks within the town. The booklet is available from BirdLife Lowveld. Special birds include Gorgeous Bush Shrike, Purple-crested Touraco, Heuglin's and African White-throated Robin-Chats, Half-collared Kingfisher, African Finfoot, Golden Weaver, Red-faced Cisticola, Green Twinspot and Red-backed Mannikin.
Montane grassland with Protea stands dominate the open patches of this montane forest almost taken over in total by exotic pine plantations. Gurney's Sugarbird, Swee Waxbill, Orange Ground-Thrush, Roufus-Chested Sparrow-hawk, Scaly-throated Honeyguide, White-Starred Robin, Olive Sunbird and Forest Canary occurs on this Pass.
Songimvelo Game Reserve
This 56,000 ha reserve is controlled by Mpumalanga Parks Board. It is situated along the eastern Drakensberg escarpment, between the towns of Barberton and Badplaas. There is considerable variation in altitude, ranging between 696 to 1851 metres above sea level. The Komati and Lomati Rivers are the two major rivers bisecting the reserve and there is considerable habitat variation. Komati River Lodge in picturesque mountainous terrain is the only accommodation within the reserve. It is a tented lodge situated on the south-western side of the reserve alongside the fast-flowing Komati River. Birding from the network of rough gravel roads has the added attraction of the presence of big game animals such as White Rhinoceros and Buffalo and many species of antelope. Birds include specials such as African Finfoot, Broad-tailed Warbler, Barrow's Korhaan, Red-billed Oxpecker, African Black Duck, Martial Eagle, Red-throated Wryneck, Brown-Backed Honeybird, Croaking Cisticola, and Half-collared Kingfisher in the area where the lodge is situated. At higher altitude there are forest birds such as Knysna Touraco, Chorister Robin-Chat, White-Starred Robin, and Orange Ground Thrush.
This district of montane grasslands, high-altitude marshes and moist forests is one of South Africa's major birding hotspots. A good network of quiet farm roads traverses the entire area and the village of Wakkerstroom has a variety of affordable accommodation. Major target birds in this area are range-restricted grassland endemics, many of which are highly threatened. These include Rudd's and Botha's Larks, Southern Bald Ibis, Grey-winged Francolin, Blue Crane, Blue and Barrow's Korhaans, Ground Woodpecker, Sentinel Rock Thrush, Yellow-breasted and African Rock Pipits, Buff-streaked Chat and many more out of a total of 360 species recorded in the district. Narrow forested gorges and sheltered slopes harbour a few endemic forest birds, most notably Bush Blackcap, Barratt's Warbler and Chorister Robin-Chat. High-altitude marshes support a representation of Highveld waterbirds, but also have small populations of two endangered species, Wattled Crane and White-winged Flufftail.
Abbreviations Key: See the appropriate Continent Page (or Country Page of those used on country sub-divisions)
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Guides & Tour Operators
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2015 [09 September] - Dylan Vasapolli - Zaagkuildrift & Wakkerstroom
A quick four-day trip saw me, together with Nigel, take on the Zaagkuilsdrift region north of Pretoria, along with the rich grasslands surrounding Wakkerstroom, further to the south. A full day was spent north of Pretoria before transiting south to Wakkerstroom for two nights and returning to Johannesburg, bringing the tour to an end.
2015 [12 December] - Birding Ecotours
2016 [01 January] - Birding Ecotours
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Places to Stay
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Kosi Forest Camp
Kosi Forest Lodge a private lodge situated in the unspoilt wilderness that is part of the Isimangaliso Wetland Park, now internationally recognised as a World Heritage Site. The 16-bed lodge offers comfortable accommodation, fine cuisine and caters for a host of estuarine, beach and wilderness activities. Explore this unique ecosystem by guided canoe, boat trip on the lakes, raffia forest walks or day excursion to nearby coastal beaches. Discover one of South Africa’s best ecotourist destinations.
Notten's Bush Camp
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Photographers & Artists
Photographer - Adrian Hopkins
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